John Jacob Niles

Director: William Richardson
Release Year: 1978
Running Time: 31:01
Original Format: 16mm Film
Color / B&W: color

John Jacob Niles is a portrait of the adding machine repairman who came to eastern Kentucky in 1909, “heard the songs [his] father sang,” and became a much-noted “arranger, expander, collector, recorder, and performer” of traditional Appalachian ballads. Niles played an important part in the national “discovery” of Appalachian folk music. He describes how, during the 1920s and ’30s, he and photographer Doris Ulmann travelled the mountain region–she taking pictures of the people and he learning their songs. The film shows Niles in concert, at home, at work arranging his music, and explaining the historical place of balladry in American music.

This film was preserved by Appalshop Archive with funding from the National Film Preservation Foundation. To support the work of preserving and safeguarding Appalshop’s collections, please consider making a donation to Appalshop Archive.

Screenings & Festivals

American Folklore Society

Big Muddy Film Festival–Honorable Mention

FILMEX, Los Angeles


“This remarkable 86-year-old performer is an artist of unique insight, as this affectionate film clearly shows….it is a rewarding experience to come to understand the man and his music.” –Media and Methods

“The film captures the essence of his art and music. A rare visit with a great man.” –Raymond McClain, Berea College